The 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign kicked off in earnest this week, as President Obama formally launched his re-election bid and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney sealed his claim to the Republican nomination. Barring unforeseen events, the next significant milestone in the campaign between now and the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer will be Romney’s selection of a running mate. In this context, we are pleased that the neoconservative foreign policy crowd has reached out once again to highlight our work.
More specifically, neocon pundit Bret Stephens used his most recent column in The Wall Street Journal to argue why presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney should not select Condoleeza Rice for his running mate, see here. Stephens acknowledges that the political positives of such a move are considerable. Some analysts, citing recent poll data, even argue that Romney’s choice of Rice would be a “game changer” for the election, see here. But, Stephens writes, “There’s only one problem. Ms. Rice was a bad national security adviser and a bad secretary of state.” (Having watched her up close, we certainly agree that Ms. Rice was a bad national security adviser and a bad Secretary of State, though we adduce some different reasons for that assessment than Mr. Stephens does.)
To make his case, Stephens reviews a litany of decisions and actions by Rice during her service in the George W. Bush Administration. Among them, “She hired Flynt Leverett for a top job at NSC; he’s since gone on to become the Beltway’s go-to apologist for Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
Before commenting on the “Rice factor” in the 2012 campaign, we would note that Stephens’ line of attack is symptomatic of America’s intellectually bankrupt foreign policy debate. When neoconservatives like Stephens (or their fellow travelers like Dennis Ross) want to criticize our work on Iran, Syria, or other high-profile Middle East issues, they don’t challenge us on the merits of our analysis—because they can’t. Instead, they go after us for being “apologists” for some Middle Eastern leader that they have already caricatured as despicable (therefore making it impossible for the United States to have anything but a neoconservative foreign policy toward that leader’s country).
On this point, we would simply reiterate what we wrote last year in response to The New Republic’s characterization of us as apologists for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
“We are proud of having been virtually the only Western-based Iran analysts who were right about the 2009 Iranian presidential election and how Mousavi’s fact-free challenge to the outcome and the Green movement that rose out of it would both fizzle out. We are proud of our commentary on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a politician and President. We fully agree that “apologetics is not analysis”; we have not been and never will be apologists for anyone. Our analysis led us to the conclusion that Ahmadinejad is a talented but polarizing political figure who built up significant reservoirs of popular support in Iran…We would be apologists only if we refrained from publishing our conclusions when they might violate the parameters for “acceptable” discourse about the Middle East established by the likes of The New Republic’s publishers and editors.”
We are proud, in the same way, of our work on the Iranian nuclear issue, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations, and Syrian politics and foreign policy under President Bashar al-Assad, and a broad range of other international issues. We are certainly not going to retreat from our political analysis in the face of ad-hominem attacks from the likes of Mr. Stephens, who, at least from the time of the Iraq war, has not gotten anything right about the Middle East and has advocated policies (such as the Iraq war) that have been strategic and moral travesties for the United States.
While we agree with Stephens that Rice mismanaged the run-up to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, we part company with him to argue that the bigger problem was her support for the invasion in the first place. She herself lied to the American public and the rest of the world—as Stephens and his cohorts do today regarding Iran—in advocating America’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq with her famous warning not to let the next “smoking gun” be a “mushroom cloud.” She did not just mismanage the Iraq occupation; she—like Stephens and every other neoconservative, liberal internationalist, and ideologically muddled hawk—was heedless of the strategic consequences of such an occupation for the United States.
The real tragedy is that, if Rice becomes Romney’s running mate, the only voices that will criticize her tenure in government will come from neoconservative quarters. The Obama administration will treat her public record with kid gloves—notwithstanding candidate Obama’s 2008 pledge not just to end the war in Iraq but to end the “mindset” that produced such a colossally bad choice in the first place. Far from changing this mindset, Obama and his team have internalized it as their own.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett